17 Dec 2009

John the Forerunner

The following appears as the most recent instalment of my monthly column, "Principalities & Powers," in the Canadian newspaper, Christian Courier:

Among the four gospels Luke is unique in offering readers four canticles, along the lines of those found in the Old Testament. The best known of these is the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary (1:46-55), whose structure and content is patterned after the ancient Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10). Another is the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32), the elderly man who rejoiced that his eyes had at last seen in Jesus the salvation God had “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” The Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2:14) would come to be elaborated and extended, finding its way into the ordinary of the mass in the western church.

Then there is the Benedictus of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, who sang it on the occasion of his son’s birth, shortly after his voice had returned to him (Luke 1:68-79). In the Orthodox tradition John is called Prodromos (Πρόδρομος) or Forerunner. He is portrayed in icons with long unkempt hair and beard, and with a cloth cloak covering a blue fleecy camel hair shirt. He is sometimes given angelic wings, as Jesus had identified him as the promised messenger (Greek: άγγελος) sent before him (Malachi 3:1; Matthew 11:10). Sometimes John is even shown carrying his own severed head in a dish!

During his lifetime, John was popularly recognized to be a prophet, and even the sceptical authorities were reluctant to deny it outright for fear of the people (Mark 11:32). Zechariah himself had prophesied that his son would be “called the prophet of the Most High” and “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (76). Jesus identified John with Elijah, whose coming “before the great and awesome day of the LORD” Malachi had forecast centuries earlier (Matthew 11:14; Malachi 4:5).

Nearly a decade ago I wrote a metrical versification of the text of Zechariah’s song, to be sung to the tune, AN WASSERFLÜSSEN BABYLON, by Wolfgang Dachstein, organist for Martin Bucer who contributed to the metrical psalter used in 16th-century Strasbourg. The text follows below:
Praise to the Lord, to Israel’s God
who came to bring us redemption,
for he has raised from David’s house
a mighty power for salvation.
He spoke through prophets long ago
that he would free us from the foe.
He promised father Abr’ham
that he would save us, free of all fears,
from every enemy that appears,
that we might serve in holiness before him.

You, little child, are called of God
to prophesy to the nation,
to go before the Saviour’s way
and gladly herald salvation;
to tell abroad to all that live
that God is anxious to forgive;
for through his mercies tender,
his rising sun will shine from above,
illuming those who strayed from his love,
to guide their feet in peace with his own splendour.

Copyright © 2000 by David T. Koyzis.

14 Dec 2009

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People

There is perhaps no biblical passage that more breathes the spirit of Advent than Isaiah 40:1-8, which, after the destruction predicted earlier in the book, suddenly and unexpectedly promises comfort to the people of Israel, who have gone through generations of exile in Babylon. So unexpected is this change of tone that many, if not most, biblical scholars think it must have been written by someone other than the 8th-century prophet.

The opening of Isaiah's Book of Consolation is marvellously captured in this metrical versification so familiar to Christians during Advent: Comfort, Comfort Ye My People.

Written by 17th-century hymn writer Johannes Olearius, it was translated into English two centuries later by the great Catherine Winkworth, who did more than any other person to bring the corpus of German hymnody into the English language. The tune was composed in Geneva in 1551 by Louis Bourgeois and was assigned to Psalm 42. The third stanza runs thus:
Hark, the herald's voice is crying
In the desert far and near,
Bidding all men to repentance
Since the Kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
Let the valleys rise to meet Him
And the hills bow down to greet Him.

The Gospel writers understood this passage to refer to John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-6; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-18 and John 1:19-23). I will return shortly to John's role in the coming of the Messiah.

11 Dec 2009

Hannah’s song, Mary’s Magnificat

It would take too long to list the myriad composers who have set to music the Magnificat of Mary, as found in Luke 1:46-55. J. S. Bach's is perhaps the best known of the baroque settings, while, of the modern English-language versifications, Timothy Dudley-Smith's Tell Out My Soul has been a perennial favourite of many congregations for nearly half a century.

Less well known and less used liturgically is the ancient Song of Hannah as recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. The Magnificat and Hannah's song are properly mentioned together, because the former is literarily and thematically dependent on the latter. Both Hannah and Mary are mothers rejoicing at the birth of an unexpected child. Hannah praises God that he has seen fit to end the curse of her barrenness, while Mary glorifies the Lord because he has chosen her to bear the promised Messiah. Each knew to her sorrow that she would have to give up her son one day.

John Mark Reynolds alludes to an ancient tradition which identifies Mary's parents as Joachim and Anna. Though the tradition has no explicit scriptural basis, it could conceivably represent a continuing memory of genuine persons who lived in the first century before Christ. However, I myself wonder whether there might not be another explanation for at least Anna's name. The Greek name Anna (Άννα) is, of course, a transliteration of the Hebrew Hannah (חנה). If Hannah's song is the "mother" of Mary's song, might this explain the identification of Mary's biological mother as Hannah? I will defer to the biblical scholars here, but it seems plausible to this admitted amateur.

Last summer I wrote a metrical versification of Hannah's song to be sung to the Genevan tune for Psalm 98. The music can be found here. Back in 1987 I versified Mary's Magnificat and composed an original melody, SOUTH BEND, named for where I was living at the time. The music can be found here and a descant for the 4th verse here.

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour."

2 Nov 2009

Updates to video page

Several more videos have been added, including Psalm 47 sung by Les pèlerins du pays de Montbéliard, and Psalms 81 and 119 (partial) sung by the Musica Humana Choir, Ada & the Teachers' Chamber Choir, Komló, Hungary.

10 Oct 2009

Metres: uniformity versus diversity

Our family are currently members of a church that sings the psalms some of the time, if less than I myself would like to see. Those psalms that we do sing come in large measure from the Scottish Psalter of 1650 or a related tradition. One of the principal characteristics of metrical psalmody in the British Isles is its regular metres.

The most common metre in use is called, unsurprisingly, common metre (CM) or ballad metre, whose structure is as follows: iambic. What this means is that it consists of four lines, one and three having eight syllables and two and four having six. Iambic means that each line begins on an unstressed or feminine syllable. When I first began writing metrical psalms some three decades ago, I did so, almost instinctively, in common metre, seemingly unaware of alternatives. So thoroughly is this metre bred in the bones of English-speaking Christians that it is nearly second nature to them.

Not quite as common, but still familiar to English-speaking Christians, are long metre (LM) and short metre (SM), which are structured respectively as follows: iambic and iambic. All three of these, of course, can be doubled to make for a longer stanza.

One of the reasons why these three metres are so popular in the English-speaking world is that they are well suited to the language, whose words have fewer feminine endings than some other languages, including French, Dutch and German. Due to the absence of noun cases, which dropped out of use centuries ago, English is not the easiest language in which to write poetry, primarily because word order is so inflexible — one reason why the versifications in the Scottish Psalter sound so awkward to our ears.

More than two decades ago I was given a copy of the 1929 edition of the Scottish Psalter by my late friend Stan Hall. As can be seen in the photograph (above right), it is a split-page edition in which texts and tunes can be easily mixed and matched. This very possibility is, of course, entirely due to the regular metres employed. Any common metre text can be paired with any common metre tune. In this there are parallels with Anglican chant, in which a small number of chants can be matched to virtually any text, although the reason in that case is precisely the opposite, namely, the lack of metre in the BCP psalter.

This regularity of metres is absent for the most part from the Genevan Psalter, which explains why it would be altogether impossible to publish a split-page edition. (See the old Dutch Gereformeerd psalter at left.) Some tunes do share the same metres, e.g., Psalms 12 and 110 ( and Psalms 100/131 and 134 (LM). Yet many more have unusual metres that appear to have been created specially for certain texts. Such include (Psalm 5), (Psalms 14 and 53) and the quirky (Psalms 33 and 67). Some have very long stanzas, such as Psalm 19 (, which would make them difficult to replicate elsewhere.

As those acquainted with my website know, I myself prefer the Genevan tunes, which strike a marvellous balance between simplicity and complexity, vividly conveying the unique message of each psalm and imprinting it in the heart of the believer. Indeed whenever I hear reference to a specific psalm or hear that psalm read, even in prose translation, the proper Genevan melody inevitably pops into my head. May God continue to be glorified in these sturdy tunes, nearly 450 years after they were first sung.

2 Oct 2009

Update: new videos

I have just posted several more videos to the video section of my website, including the following of a congregation singing Psalm 124 at l'Église Saint-Pierre in Geneva, the church John Calvin himself preached at during his stay there. I was privileged to visit this church during my first trip to Europe more than 30 years ago.

This choral arrangement of Psalm 128, sung by the Vocalconsort Berlin is especially beautiful and worth listening to. The German text is from the Lobwasser-Psalter of Ambrosius Lobwasser (1515-85).

28 Sept 2009

Seerveld's psalms

At the weekend I participated in the Refresh & Renew conference on worship at Redeemer University College. I was invited by Calvin Seerveld, Senior Member Emeritus in Philosophical Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto, to serve as cantor for his two workshops on the psalms. The first was titled "On Slipping Gutsy Psalms into Worship Services," and the second, "Biblical Psalm Lament, Curses and the 'Blues'." Cal (as everyone affectionately calls him) has long been setting the psalms to verse, pairing them with existing tunes or composing his own. In fact, until two days ago I had quite forgotten that my own interest in the psalms was sparked three decades ago when, as a student at the ICS, I heard him play his own versification of Psalm 128 set to the proper Genevan melody. I was hooked.

The most challenging pieces were his own blues psalms, only one of which we had time for. Written in a blues scale, his versification of Psalm 92 (very different from my own) called for a young female voice to effect the style of the African American singer, which is difficult for someone not steeped in the genre. I myself was called to sing the antiphon for Cal's Scream 88 Blues, a rendition of Psalm 88, the darkest by far of all the psalms: "LORD God! my God, I scream to you! Can you not hear my cry?" I doubt I was able to scream out the word "scream" with quite the intensity he was hoping for. Nevertheless, he was very gracious, as always, and expressed appreciation for my feeble effort. Of course, hearing him speak is always a treat.

Seerveld's Voicing God's Psalms, along with his other books, can be purchased here.

18 Sept 2009

Gaelic psalms

A colleague of mine recently returned from a conference in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he heard sung the Psalms in Scots Gaelic, with a precentor leading the congregation. Here are three samples:

To my untutored reading eye (I know nothing of the Celtic languages) it appears that the psalms sung above are from this Scots Gaelic metrical psalter, on the website of St. Columba's Church of Scotland in Glasgow, where there is a Gaelic Psalm Singing School.

Update: As far as I can tell, the second tune above, MARTYRS, to which Psalm 79 is sung, is the same as PLAINTIVE MARTYRS, as found at the Cyberhymnal website. Note the much brisker pace of the latter.

4 Sept 2009

Chanting the Psalms

Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if Christians were to hold competitions in chanting the Psalms similar to what we see below.

If Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura (1912-2000) is correct (which is disputed), it is possible that the entire Old Testament was once chanted. Listen to this NPR report below:

Here is Haïk-Vantoura's rendition of Psalm 23. Is her thesis plausible? I wouldn't presume to judge, but it is intriguing, if nothing else.

18 Aug 2009

Worship music

I am cross-posting this with my other blog, Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist.

It is not difficult to find Christian theologians and liturgical scholars commenting on what makes for a good hymn text. For example, I recently read J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, in the course of which he discusses the merits of three familiar hymns, Nearer, My God, to Thee, In the Cross of Christ I Glory and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, the last of which he judges superior to the other two, due to its obvious grasp of the place of the cross in the economy of salvation. Similarly, following the church fathers, the reformers and many others, I myself am persuaded that the psalms must have a pre-eminent place in the church's liturgy. So much for texts.

But what of the church's music? Is there better or worse music by which to worship the Triune God? Are some genres better suited than others to the liturgical assembly? Does it really matter whether we use organs, unaccompanied voices or electric guitars? Isn't it all finally a mere matter of personal taste? That's what many would argue. I strongly disagree. Although one could write an entire treatise on the subject, I will limit myself to putting forth a few principles for consideration.

1. The tune must fit the text. Even if their metres are identical, not every text necessarily goes with every tune. A particularly egregious violation of this principle is found in the 1957 edition of the Christian Reformed Church's Psalter Hymnal. Number 158 is a metrical versification of Psalm 83 set to FOREST GREEN. The text is one of the imprecatory psalms, calling down God's wrath on his enemies, which would seem to require something less obviously cheerful than FOREST GREEN. (Happily, this unfortunate pairing of text and tune did not make it into the 1987 edition.)

2. Avoid pairing texts with a tune too obviously associated in the popular mind with another text or occasion. The Scottish Psalter's The Lord's My Shepherd, I'll Not Want could conceivably be sung to Lowell Mason's ANTIOCH, but given that the latter is a familiar Christmas tune, it is probably not wise to do so. It may also be illegal in some cases. About three decades ago, some churches were singing a liturgical benediction to Richard Rodger's tune for Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music. Rodgers himself and, later, the executors of his estate were definitely not amused.

3. The music should not overwhelm the text but ought to be ancillary to it. There is something to be said for unaccompanied unison singing, as found in, e.g., the Orthodox Churches and 16th-century Geneva. Reformed Presbyterians allow for part-singing but without musical instruments. While most Christians do not see fit to embrace such seemingly austere practices (and for good biblical reasons; see Psalm 150), it is nevertheless true that excessively flashy organ-playing or loud guitars and drums come dangerously close to violating this principle. Instruments should precisely accompany singing, not dominate it.

4. Music for the congregation must be fairly simple in structure, both rhythmically and musically. It certainly should not distract from the text being sung. Here a distinction must be made between those tunes meant for congregational singing, on the one hand, and solo and choral singing, on the other. I leave aside the latter for now, except to note that choirs and soloists generally take on more challenging music than the typical congregation can be expected to.

Several years ago I wrote a metrical version of the Apostles' Creed, which I titled, Credo in Septuple Metre. The tune I came up with, LUSIGNAN, is actually a fairly simple one, but the time signature, 7/8, may make it unsingable by an ordinary congregation, except perhaps by one belonging to the Greek Evangelical Church, where such rhythms would be familiar. It would thus probably make a better solo piece. On the other hand, the moving hymn, Gift of Finest Wheat, is included in many hymnals and is beautifully sung by congregations, despite its alternating 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures. This demonstrates that the musical ability of many congregations should not necessarily be underestimated.

5. While the melody should be simple, it must also be memorable, which is to say, distinctive enough to stick with people. This implies a certain degree of movement in the tune. For example, Lowell Mason's HAMBURG is well-known and easily sung, though in my view it is not an especially strong melody, consisting entirely of a series of ascending and descending partial scales. Ascents and descents invariably move one step at a time, and the entire tune spans only five notes. This gives it the undoubted virtue of not unduly taxing the singer, but leaves it with the corresponding defect of not being very interesting.

By contrast, Edward Miller's ROCKINGHAM, which has the same metrical structure, is a much stronger melody, spanning a whole octave, with the movement reaching two obvious climaxes in lines 2 and 3. The motion of the tune sometimes moves by thirds and fourths, and even drops by a sixth after the second high note. ROCKINGHAM is simply a more dramatic tune and better communicates the story of redemption.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame in the early 1980s, I wrote a versification of Psalm 137 and came up with this tune. When I showed it to a professional musician who was a member of my church congregation, he told me there wasn't enough movement in the melody. I took his critique to heart, scrapped that tune and came up with this one instead: HICKORY ROAD, which many would likely judge superior to my initial effort.

There is more to be said on this topic, so I shall return to it later and explore specific genres of liturgical music in light of the above, including traditional chant and contemporary christian music.

6 Aug 2009

Worship wars

Chuck Colson's latest Breakpoint commentary raises an issue of concern to many Christians, at least in North America, where we have the luxury of time and energy to dispute such things: Worship Wars. Although his piece is subtitled "How Do We Determine Musical Excellence," he addresses the subject of music only in passing, mostly focussing on hymn texts. Citing one Donald Williams, he offers these criteria for evaluating worship songs: (1) biblical truth, (2) theological profundity and (3) poetic richness. I can agree with all of these, which derive from the following observation:

Much of today’s music is of poor quality, [Williams] writes. But so was some music written centuries ago. The difference is the old hymns have endured a centuries-long weeding-out process. If we hope to identify the best new music, Williams writes, we must know “those marks of excellence that made the best of the past stand out and survive so long.”

To be sure, poor-quality hymns have been written for centuries, and these are the ones that generally do not survive the passing of their own generation.

However, conspicuous by its absence in Colson's commentary is any reference to psalm-singing, which was standard throughout virtually all protestant churches until the 18th century and, in some cases, much later. If Williams is right about this "centuries-long weeding-out process," what accounts for the loss of metrical psalmody in so many communions? Surely the biblical Psalms were sturdy enough to survive this darwinian struggle?

I think three factors can be cited here. First, the influence of confessional liberalism during and after the 18th century made the Psalms seem primitive and unenlightened. With many professed Christians revising Jesus' status to that of a mere teacher of morality, there seemed little point in continuing to sing the psalms in church, as they seemed to do little in support of this new "enlightened" religion.

Second, at the Reformation there arose a kind of liturgical constructivism that made the church's liturgy seem endlessly revisable. The Reformed were more radical in this than the more liturgically conservative Lutherans and Anglicans. Although the nonlutheran Reformers sought to reform the liturgy according to their understanding of the teachings of scripture, their heirs often sought revisions either for the sake of mere novelty or to conform the liturgy to new ways of thinking.

In the 17th century Anglo-Celtic Presbyterians ill-advisedly moved away from set liturgies, allowing the minister or presiding worship leader to make up their own prayers as they saw fit. This was the point of the Westminster Directory of Public Worship, which had a subsequent influence in the later development of liturgical life in the free churches. Of course, this approach depends very much on the skill and confessional integrity of individual ministers. When these begin to waver, they take the church with them.

The Psalms of David imitated in the language of the New Testament and apply'd to the Christian state and worship, by I. Watts
Third, because the Psalms were sung to verse, their quality was dependent on the skill of the versifiers. If the latter emphasized literal accuracy at the expense of comprehen-sibility and literary grace (e.g., the Scottish Psalter), congregations would likely weary of trying to sing them at some point. By contrast, if the versifier emphasized literary quality at the expense of accuracy (e.g., Isaac Watts), there was always the danger of imposing one's own understanding and interpretations on the metrical versions. At that point the boundary between versifier and hymn-writer became fuzzy indeed, and the psalms were eventually abandoned for the more popular hymns of Watts, Wesley and many others.

But what of the role of music? Here's Colson again:

A fourth mark is musical beauty. In great music, “there are certain contours, structures, and cadences that make for a singable melody.” And the right harmony “can make that melody more memorable . . .,” [Williams] writes. For instance, “Be Thou My Vision” “rises and falls like an ocean wave or a sine curve.” Tragically, Williams notes, “more recent praise choruses seem to ignore all the rules of good composition, giving us not well-shaped melodies but just one note after another.”

It is not a simple matter to articulate the norms that make for great music, although I think it would be the height of folly to suggest from this that norms do not exist. I'll come back to this at some point, because the issue deserves separate treatment.

4 Aug 2009

Singing the Psalms: Presbyterian Church in Canada

During a recent holiday to Grand Bend, Ontario, our family visited the marvellous Lambton Heritage Museum, which proved to be much more interesting than we had expected and is definitely worth seeing if you get out that way. In addition to the indoor museum, boasting quilts, old furniture and other regional artefacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the large grounds host a reconstructed rural village, complete with, among other things, a blacksmith shop, a slaughterhouse, an old schoolhouse and a church. The church building once housed the former Cameron Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1867, the year of Confederation, and lasted until the very end of the last century, when it closed due to an ageing and attenuated membership.

One item caught my eye on the pulpit: an ancient copy of an early edition of the Presbyterian Church's Book of Praise, a small volume containing only the texts of the psalms and hymns therein. (The opening pages with the publication date are missing.) On the cover is the Burning Bush, the nearly half-millennium old symbol of the Reformed Churches.

Book of Praise
As I opened it, I was delighted to see the familiar opening words of Psalm 1 from the Scottish Psalter:

That man hath perfect blessedness,
who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men,
nor stands in sinners’ way,
Nor sitteth in the scorner’s chair:
But placeth his delight
Upon God’s law, and meditates
on his law day and night.

Book of Praise
Although the metrical psalter does not include every psalm (e.g., it skips over Psalms 135, 137 and — incredibly — 138), it contains more than subsequent editions of the Book of Praise. The 1897 and 1902 editions each carry 122 versifications of psalms or parts of psalms, while the 1972 edition has only 68 such versifications, doubling some psalms and leaving out many more. However, lest one conclude that psalm-singing is on the way out in the PCC, the 1997 edition contains 108 psalms and psalm selections, a definite improvement over its predecessor. May psalm-singing once again flourish in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

28 Jul 2009

Song of Hannah

Among the canticles in the Old Testament is the Song of Hannah, which is found in I Samuel 2:1-10. As you may recall, Hannah was one of the two wives of Elkanah and had been unable to bear children. Deeply unhappy, she prayed to God, who granted her a son, Samuel, who would grow up to become one of the greatest of the early Israelite prophets. In gratitude for the gift of a child, Hannah sang this song.

I have now set the Song of Hannah to verse and joined it to the Genevan tune for Psalms 66/98/118. It will be noted that there is more than a passing resemblance between this song and Mary's Magnificat, as recorded in Luke 1:46-55. Indeed Mary's song seems literarily and thematically dependent on Hannah's, which was written possibly as early as a thousand years beforehand.

It might interest some to know how I went about writing this. I had been intending to tackle Hannah's song for some years. I took the opportunity of a family holiday to the shores of Lake Huron last week to make the attempt. I initially wrote a versification in metre, intending to use Orlando Gibbons' lovely SONG 13 as the tune. However, given that there are only four lines in the tune, my versification ended up consisting of 11 stanzas, which is far too many to make it easily sung. The very next day I began writing another versification to the Genevan tune, whose metre is This made for a text that runs through slightly more than four verses, with two additional lines to be sung to the last two lines of music.

I would still like to use Gibbons' tune for some biblical text at some point, but I think the latter will have to be much shorter than Hannah's song.

29 Jun 2009

Update: Psalm 2

Having finally received and heard the Sacred Bridges album, I was inspired to compose my own arrangement of the tune for Psalm 2, along with an unrhymed metrical versification, which I have now posted at the website. I have also posted a brief review of this CD under discography, much of which replicates what I wrote below on 9 March.

25 Jun 2009

Thomas Tallis' psalms

This takes us back to England, of course, but I think it's worth drawing attention here to the beautiful melodies — nine in number — that Thomas Tallis composed for Archbishop Matthew Parker's Psalter. The most haunting of these is the third tune, commonly referred to as THIRD MODE MELODY (because it's in the phrygian or third mode), to which Psalm 2 is set. Twentieth-century composer Ralph Vaughan Williams famously used it as the basis for his own Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, a personal favourite of mine. PDF files of the music can be accessed at Free-scores.com.

These tunes can be heard below, as performed by the Renaissance Singers.

24 Jun 2009

22 Jun 2009

Updates: Psalms 23 and 130

I have just written another versification of Psalm 23 to be sung to any common metre or double common metre melody, in the style of the several editions of the Scottish Psalter. I have chosen DUNFERMLINE as the tune and posted it here.

I have also posted music for my common metre versification for Psalm 130, as well as corrected a printing error in the pdf file for Psalm 137.

Later: I've posted one more item: a double common meter version of the Song of Simeon or Nunc Dimittis, set to the familiar tune BETHLEHEM.

30 May 2009

Printable scores

I have now posted printable scores in PDF format for virtually all of the psalms, canticles and hymns on my website. Take a look. In some cases these may not be precisely the same arrangements as the midi files. It will take me some time to go through these one by one to bring some consistency to them. That's a project for another day.

Later: I have posted at the bottom of the front page of this site my terms of use for these songs, along with the copyright information.

15 May 2009

Kuyper on the Genevan melodies

Abraham Kuyper I have recently reread Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, delivered in 1898 at Princeton Seminary. Although it's a marvellous book meriting more than one reading, there are some quirky elements that have not stood the test of time. Although his chapter on "Calvinism and Politics" obviously holds special interest for me, this time I took note of his treatment of the Genevan Psalms in "Calvinism and Art." Here the author uncritically repeats an opinion that has been widespread for a long time, namely, that the tunes chosen for the Psalms in the 16th century were well-known popular melodies already familiar to the people:

The men who first arranged the music of the Psalm for the Calvinistic singing were the brave heroes who cut the strands that bound us to the Cantus firmus, and selected their melodies from the free world of music. To be sure, by doing this, they adopted the people's melodies, but as [Orentin] Douen rightly remarks, only in order that they might return these melodies to the people purified and baptized in Christian seriousness. Music also would flourish, henceforth, not within the narrow limitations of particular grace, but in the wide and fertile fields of common grace. The choir was abandoned; in the sanctuary the people themselves would sing, and therefore Bourgeois and the Calvinistic virtuosi who followed him were bound to make their selections from the popular melodies, but with this end in view, viz., that now the people would no longer sing in the saloon or in the street, but in the sanctuary, and thus, in their melodies, cause the seriousness of the heart to triumph over the heat of the lower passions.

Though Kuyper was in error here, his account parallels the oft-repeated tale that Martin Luther's EIN' FESTE BURG was originally an old German drinking song. Kuyper continues:

It was this same Bourgeois who had the courage to adopt rhythm and to exchange the eight Gregorian modes for the two of major and minor from the popular music; to sanctify its art in consecrated hymn, and so to put the impress of honor upon that musical arrangement of tunes, from which all modern music had its rise [emphasis mine].

Both of these assertions were long ago discredited, although the latter misconception was likely due to Kuyper's familiarity with 19th-century Dutch arrangements of the psalms which masked their modal character. Prof. Karel Deddens corrects the record:

Already the first edition of Strasbourg, 1539, was supplied with melodies. We have already mentioned the name of Matthias Greiter, who composed several melodies, e.g. the melody of Psalm 119, which was used by Calvin for his rhymed version of Psalm 36, while Beza later on used this melody also for his rhymed version of Psalm 68. 

Almost all other melodies originated in France. The composer of most of them was Louis Bourgeois, a cantor at the Church of Saint Pierre in Geneva; he had been attracted by John Calvin himself to work on the Psalms. Louis Bourgeois composed melodies on the so-called church modes. 

The melodies are of an extremely high quality. As for the church modes, already in that time they had a very long history. Thus it is absolutely not true that the Psalm melodies were based on street songs of that time or on airs and tunes which were popular then. For many decades this theory has been repeated, but it is totally wrong. 

Here is more from H. Hasper's Calvijns Beginsel voor den Zang in den Eredienst (1955):

During the past century the question has arisen again and again where the tunes of the Genevan Psalter may have come from. In his standard Clément Marot et le Psautier Huguenot . . . 1879 . . . Orentin Douen [whom Kuyper cites] answered this question by saying that they had been borrowed from popular tunes and street songs. This statement, pronounced with great authority but substantiated with insufficient evidence, has always been pretty generally accepted. . . . It is the great merit of Emmanuel Haein to have consigned the views of Douen to the realm of fancy. . . .
Kuyper did not have the benefit of Haein's work and thus did not know any better. However, we certainly do and need not make the same error.

26 Apr 2009

Genevan Psalter Resource Centre

Last month I was contacted by one Michael Owens, of Pennsylvania, who has set up a website called the Genevan Psalter Resource Centre, an encyclopaedic clearinghouse of information relevant to the 16th-century psalter, including various versifications of the texts and arrangements of the tunes. This is a significant resource worth taking a look at. At present he is adapting my own harmonizations of the melodies for SATB singing. I wish him the best as he continues this work.

5 Apr 2009

More psalms of Ali Ufki

I've made one more update to the website, adding the following video to the links page under The Psalms on Youtube. The singers of Festivalensemble Innovantiqua begin with Psalm 124 in Hebrew, proceed to sing Genevan Psalm 9 in Turkish, followed by Sarband's instrumental rendition, complete with whirling dervishes. Then comes Psalm 6, also versified by Ali Ufki, performed by soloist and instrumentalists. This is from a concert performed by the two groups in January of this year at the St. Arbogast Reformed Church in Winterthur, Switzerland.

23 Mar 2009

Recent updates

Two news items here:

First, I have just posted a partial versification for Psalm 119, along with a new arrangement of its tune. Thus far I have done only verses 1-16 and 105-112, with more to come. Because this is, of course, by far the longest of the psalms, it will take some time to complete it in its entirety.

More than a year ago I heard a cantor and choir in a local Anglican church chant the gregorian tone for Psalm 119, and I was surprised at how similar it was to the opening sequence of the Genevan tune. I doubt this is mere coincidence.

Second, I have somewhat altered the formatting of the site as a whole.

9 Mar 2009

The psalms in Turkish

The Genevan Psalms in Turkish? What an astonishing thought! But they do exist. Here's the story:

Sacred Bridges
The versifier was one Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675), a musically-gifted Polish-born Reformed Christian who was kidnapped at 18 by Tatars and sold as a slave to the Ottoman Sultan. He became translator, treasurer and court composer for the Sultan, (apparently) converting to Islam and changing his name to Ali Ufki. Among his many impressive achievements, he translated the Bible into Turkish and versified the first 14 Psalms in that language, enabling them to be sung to their proper Genevan melodies. This small collection was published in 1665.

If you know Dutch, you can read more in this fascinating article in Nederlands Dagblad: Calvijn in het Turks, the gist of which is summarized here in English: Genevan Tunes - ....Turkey.

Listen to Psalm 9, performed by The King's Singers and Sarband. Incredibly, though the Genevan tune is instantly recognizable, when Sarband kicks in, it sounds authentically Turkish! The recording is called Sacred Bridges: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Psalms and is available for purchase here. When and if I get hold of a copy, I'll review it here and add it to the discography section on the website.

2 Mar 2009

Salmo 23

I have just posted on the links page Psalm 23 sung in Spanish. This is the first Genevan Psalm video I've found in that language.

20 Feb 2009

One more from Hungary

Here is yet another rendition of Zoltán Kodály's spirited arrangement of Psalm 114 performed by a choir in Hungary. May the Genevan Psalms continue to be sung in that central European country. And may God grant that we North Americans learn to sing them too.

14 Feb 2009

Genevan Psalter blog

I have blogged on the Psalms often enough in the past, but I have now set up this blog as an integral part of my Genevan Psalter website, with links from there to here. I have also republished here some of my posts about the Psalms that were originally published on Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist. Watch this space for more.

1 Feb 2009

Genevan Psalms on the web

The Genevan Psalms are gradually increasing their presence on the internet. To reflect this, I have recently updated my own Psalter pages by improving and adding to the section I've titled The Psalms on Youtube, differentiating in particular between those performances of Dutch and Hungarian origins. (As indicated before in this space, I far prefer what the latter have done with the Psalms to the former's treatments.) Below is Zoltán Kodály's haunting arrangement of Psalm 121, performed by the 270-year-old Debrecen College Cantus:

And while we're on the subject of the Debreceni Református Kollégiumi Kántus (as it is known in Hungarian), their website boasts a number of excellent music files available for download. My own recommendations? Psalms 19, 46, 50, 65, and 114. The group definitely deserves more recognition on this side of the pond.

And one more: I have just received an email from Hungary informing me of yet another website in that country devoted to the Genevan Psalms: Psalms sung by József Dinnyés, as set to verse by Albert Szenci Molnár (1574-1634). After listening to some of these pieces, I would judge that the effect is remarkably similar to the late Burl Ives singing his well-known folk ballads. It's worth a listen for its unique treatment of these ancient songs.